Interview by Devon Leger
Photos of Southwest Louisiana by Lucius Fontenot
Photos of Preston Frank by Jim Miller and Rosie Newton
Zydeco and Creole music in Louisiana can be traced via the family trees that pass this music down from generation to generation. That’s multiple generations of ground-breaking musicians that went into developing this music and that continue to push its boundaries today. In Southwest Louisiana, the Frank family is one of the best-known Zydeco and Creole music families, and rightly so. Keith Frank rules the Zydeco dancehall circuit with this dance-friendly Zydeco anthems and reputation as the best of the best. But he comes from a family of Creole musicians with strong ties to the tradition. His father, Preston Frank, is one of the elders of today’s Zydeco music and has lived his life situated at the locus point when Creole music became La-La became Zydeco in the 1950s. Thanks to Jim Miller (Donna the Buffalo, Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer, Red Dog Run), I was able to call up Preston at his home in Soileau, Louisiana to interview him a bit to find out how Zydeco is passed along in his family. And thanks to Lucius Fontenot of Valcour Records for sending us his beautiful photos of SW Louisiana and the Creole music scene.
Preston Frank. Photo by Jim Miller.
KITHFOLK Interview with Preston Frank
Preston Frank: My dad’s grandfather was a fiddle player and he played with Dennis McGee. My grandfather played accordion but I never heard him play. He saw me when I bought my accordion. He played music, but some of it… he just let it all go. If you don’t practice, it leaves, you know? You gotta keep working at it. If you don’t work at it, it leaves.
Devon: What was your grandfather’s name?
Preston: Joseph Frank and my dad’s great grandfather’s name was Joseph Frank too…
My mom and dad never did speak Creole French, always English. I learned French after I had got more grown like 18, 19 because my grandmother on my mom’s side couldn’t speak English and my grandfather on my daddy’s side couldn’t speak English. To get your point across, you had to learn how to speak French and Creole in order for them to understand you and talk to you. So, that’s what made me more interested in trying to learn, because my grandmother would cook food for me in the evening-time when I got off of work and I had to tell her what I wanted for food… I learned it quick. It didn’t take me long to learn how to say some of the food stuff.
photo by Lucius Fontenot
Do you think Zydeco has always been a family music?
Preston: I wouldn’t say all of it comes from families but it’s better when the family’s all together, because then, everybody knows what you’re going to do. It’s not all the time family, that music there, it’s all about family, because you’ve got Cajun bands that are family too... I guess it’s about how you started. The Frank family has been doing it. That’s why I started my kids playing with me because we were all together. We were practicing and rehearsing right in the house.
What was the name of the group when it was you and your kids?
Preston: The name was Preston Frank Family Zydeco Band. When I started out it was: Preston Frank and the Soileau Zydeco Band.
Did you play for a lot of dances at the time? Did you record albums?
Preston: Yeah, it was Slim’s [Y-Ki-Ki], Richard’s [Club] and they had a club right by my house, Cesar’s Palace, playing Mardi Gras and different things that was what we did most.
How long did the family band last?
Preston: Family band? The family band’s still there; we don’t play that much together though. The family band is still there, but Keith went on his own. Sometimes we do stuff together, sometimes we don’t. We’re not able to do it together because that’s what he does for a living, and I was working at the time but now I’m retired. This weekend, the family’s going to be together, not all of us, because my daughter got injured, got her leg messed up, so she can’t come with us to upstate New York. I leave tomorrow. It’ll be Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Who else from the family is in that band?
Preston: Both of my sons are in it. Keith and Brad, my youngest son, Jennifer’s my daughter. She plays bass and Brad’s the drummer, Keith plays guitar. When the family is together, Keith plays guitar and Jennifer the bass and Brad drums. I got my grandson play scrub board with us now.
That’s 3 generations there.
Preston: Keep it in the family. (laughing) Keep it in the family.
What’s your advice for keeping music in the family? How did you manage to keep your family together so tight with the music for all these years?
Preston: (laughing) Any family will have some problems sometimes but I always knew that when they had something they didn’t understand I came and straightened it out. All their childhood, we tried to work together. Just wait til later; just talk it over. And probably, it will settle down.
Does the music bring your family closer together, do you feel?
Preston: Sometimes it does. I feel like it does.
Sometimes it doesn’t?
Preston: Yeah, sometimes it doesn’t. (laughing) It all depends on how they work together. Keith’s been together with his band now, he’s been together for a little while.
photo by Lucius Fontenot
I was 25, 28 when I started [learning the music]. I was much older when I started doing this. My children, they were much younger then. My children are the fifth generation in the Frank musicians.
I bought some records to try and learn but what I was hearing was not the same thing I was doing on accordion. My dad helped me to learn to like the way I played the accordion, because he knew the music and I didn’t, because I had never even listened to it. He helped me and he would show me. I’d go to work in the daytime and in the evening time, I’d come back home and I’d go meet him and he’d show me some songs, step by step. He showed me step by step and I learned from what he had showed me, and I’d go back home and practice, practice, practice. The only thing I was doing was, I was memorizing the song, what he had showed me. I’d just memorize it and, sometimes, I wouldn’t quite get what he had showed me the night before and then, go back the next night and get some more. That’s how I learned: to get to where I could understand him, go listen to him and what he had showed me, step by step. I’d just memorize what he was showing and from there, I started doing this stuff on my own.
photo by Lucius Fontenot
What was La La music? I keep hearing about La La music. What was La La music?
Preston: It was Acadian music at that time. It was mostly accordion, fiddle, and guitar and sometimes a bass. I don’t think they had drums back in them days.
Was it family music or dance music?
Preston: It was dance music but it was La La. It didn’t have that rhythm and blues style… It was almost like a street rhythm.
Lil’ Wayne, photo by Lucius Fontenot
I don’t play that new Zydeco or Acadian music. I play Creole Zydeco. It’s in between both of them. It’s got a good drive and a good swing to it…
The young people now-a-days they’re dancing more, all that jumping and things. So, they have to keep up that style, like a long time ago, when it was rock and roll music; then, they changed to disco; then, they changed it again to rap. I think it was the Zydeco musicians, when they went to Nouveau [Zydeco], they changed the style for younger people. There’s more drive to what they’re doing, than it was in my time… I try to keep the tradition alive, that’s what you have to do.For the young musicians, it can’t say anything in French, it all has to be in English because a lot of them don’t speak French at all. That’s where the difference is. I can sing in French but they all have to sing in English.
Keith Frank (photo source unknown)
Your son, Keith… he’s part of the Nouveau Zydeco wave, right?
Preston: Yeah, well, he does it all. He can do the Nouveau [Zydeco] and then, he can play identical to like I play ,which I can’t do quite the same like he does. He can do it any kind of way that it need to be done. The old-fashioned or the new one, or La La, it’s all the same to him.
Do you ever play the old La La music with him?
Preston: I never did try much to do it, but he played it, but he put a “pep in the step” and more drive in it. He can play the old stuff if he needs to.
Do you guys ever get together and jam on the old stuff?
Preston: It’s very rare that you can catch him to jam. We do some jamming for us but if you can catch him to do so jamming. My uncle and my dad and I would get together and he would come jam with us but it’s not that often you can catch him because all the time, he busy, busy.
photo by Lucius Fontenot
Preston: "All the people got their own taste of what they want."
Lynn August, photo by Lucius Fontenot
What do you remember from the house dances when you were younger? Do you remember what they were like at all?
Preston: The only thing I can remember was the people, always family people, kinfolks. They’d come to the house dance and make some big parties and gumbo and cook and then play music and everybody was having a good time.
Did they clear out the house, clear the furniture out for dancing? Did they have to move the house around?
Preston: They moved the furniture around for the people to be able to dance in it but after everything was over, they put the furniture back where it was supposed to be. They had some room; there was an old tub. People would come and they would start playing; they would dance to the music you were playing. They ended up being house parties.
Do they still have house dances and house parties for Creole music?
Preston: No, they don’t have that anymore. Things have changed in dance.
So, where do people dance now? They dance in the big dancehalls?
Preston: Most of the time, yeah. Dance in dancehalls. If you go to a dance, it’ll be in a dancehall. Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki is still open and I think, El Sid-Os, that’s another club that is open. They’ve got some places still doing dances different but they’ve got some place called Cowboy in Lafayette, different places. I think most of the music is being done, played, would be in the Lafayette area. You wouldn’t have far to travel because Lafayette or Opelousas.
photo by Lucius Fontenot
When you were younger, did Cajun and Creole musicians play together a lot? Or were they real separate?
Preston: When I first got some records, I bought a lot of music that was Cajun music at that time. That’s the first style I started from that style there. Then I changed my style after. To change with more driving, more like a rhythm and blues flavor in it.
Did the rhythm and blues come from Clifton?
Preston: I think he mixed it up too. It came from different music in the past. You just mix it all up and I guess that’s why they call it Zydeco. It’s a mix. “ No salt on the beans” It’s just a mix with more rhythm in it and more drive in it and that boom sound in it.